Published quarterly by the Research Collaboratory
for Structural Bioinformatics Protein Data Bank

Winter 2008
Number 36

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  Data Deposition
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Education Corner
Fruit-flavored Folding by Teresa MacDonald, Director of Education at The University of Kansas Natural History Museum

PDB Community Focus

Protein Modeling at the New Jersey Science Olympiad Regionals



Teresa MacDonald, Director of Education at The University of Kansas Natural History Museum

Teresa MacDonald ( is the Director of Education at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center, and an instructor in the Museum Studies graduate program. She holds a Bachelors degree in physical anthropology, and a Masters degree in vertebrate paleontology. She has over twelve years experience in the field of science education and public understanding of science. Her experience spans five countries on three continents and includes work in museums, science centers, schools and universities. MacDonald is the outreach director for the EPSCoR-funded particle physics education project, Quarked!, and is the Principle Investigator for the NSF-funded Understanding the Tree of Life project.

“Frying Pickles and Flying Marshmallows” was one of the news headlines inspired by our museum’s annual science event, titled Playing With Your Food.1 Over six days, more than 4,000 visitors explored science through demonstrations and activities that all used food in some way–such as Cartesian divers, gelatin optics and exploding cornstarch. During all of our events, we offer a range of activities to serve a broad audience, and try to incorporate some more challenging concepts or less familiar science ideas into the visitor experience. During Playing With Your Food, we used colored licorice inside napkin rings to demonstrate the ‘tube within a tube’ body plan found in most animals, talked about the biogeography of worms in North America, and used Fruit by the Foot™ to illustrate protein folding.

We searched for images online that were created with protein modeling software (cartoon images) and followed these to create a three-dimensional model of the tertiary structure of the ovalbumin protein found in eggs. A folded protein model was made using a thin wire frame wrapped in Fruit by the Foot™. An unfolded, twisted mass of Fruit by the Foot™ was used to represent the denatured egg protein. These two models, along with a raw and cooked egg, were used to teach visitors about: (1) what proteins are; (2) how they are made; and (3) the different levels of protein structure.

Visitors are often familiar with some elements of science topics, but can struggle with making connections between, or synthesizing, different pieces of information. One misconception that I encounter on a regular basis is that DNA is only found in blood, saliva, and gonads because of the many references to crime scene investigations and paternity suits in the popular media. Our events provide an opportunity to make connections between new ideas and the concepts familiar to visitors. We felt that visitors were likely to have heard of proteins and that most would recognize eggs as being a good source of protein, but that the majority of visitors would not have a broader understanding of proteins, such as their varied roles in the body, the relationship between DNA and proteins, or the idea of protein folding.

The Fruit by the Foot™ protein model piqued visitors’ interest–they wanted to know what it was and why we would make something like this. We typically began the discussion by asking visitors about what they already knew about proteins and their related knowledge or experiences–e.g., what they knew about DNA coding, whether they had ever cooked eggs, eaten cheese or yoghurt. All visitors, children and adults, had heard of proteins and the majority suggested that “you should eat them to make you strong.” Few had made any connections between DNA, amino acids, and proteins, or were aware of protein folding. Protein folding was introduced by looking at what happens to egg proteins when you “cook” them–bonds break, proteins unfold, and new bonds form between proteins to produce the familiar hard “egg white.” The model helped to illustrate the secondary–specifically alpha helices and beta pleated sheets–and tertiary structure of proteins. This was then related to the importance of protein folding in studying some human diseases.

Whenever possible, we try to link activities within and between our events. Activities that were related to the protein demonstration included: (1) extraction of DNA from strawberries; (2) DNA jewelry that used colored beads and pipecleaners to create DNA strands of triplet sequences that coded for letters of the alphabet rather than amino acids; and (3) a Gummy Fish Genetics display which used regular and mini-gummy fish to demonstrate simple Mendelian inheritance. Future links could include antibodies and enzymes, and opportunities for visitors to make their own models.

For more information about The University of Kansas Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center, please see

Demonstration center

Tyson Pyle assisting visitors in making their own DNA jewelry

Teresa MacDonald and Dawn Kirchner extracting DNA from strawberries for visitors

Selecting a fish from the parent pool for Gummy Fish Genetics.


  1. Frying pickles and flying marshmallows: museum says it’s OK to be play with food. KU news release, March 7, 2007


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